Each Sunday morning our family gathers with some fellow believers in our home. As part of these meetings we've recently been studying through the book of Romans. It has been a joy.
As we looked at Romans chapter 12 and then chapter 13 I was struck by the importance of not separating the two in our minds. Of course, it is all too easy to do this since most bibles make a fairly big deal out of the man-made chapter divisions. Even we, as a small group of Christians, tend to study chapter-by-chapter each week. For example, one week we read through and discussed Romans 12 and the following week Romans 13. It would have been simple to miss the relationship between the two if we didn't pay active attention.
The beginning of Romans 12 is a well-known transition point in the book. The previous eleven chapters focused mostly on what God has done in His grand plan of redemption. Romans 12-16 looks primarily at what man's response should be in light of what God has accomplished. Paul sums this up well in Romans 12:1-2, "I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect."
Paul expects us to be "living sacrifices" to God. But what does this look like? The apostle teases this out through the remainder of the epistle. In chapter 12 Paul lists various expectations of the Christian life. Toward the end of the chapter he tells the Roman Christians to "repay no one evil for evil" and "never avenge yourselves." His language is clear. The chapter ends at this point.
This is where the danger comes into play.
In chapter 13 Paul discusses the importance of being subject to governing authorities. Verses 13:3-4 say, "For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer."
The danger to the church, if we separate chapters 12 and 13, is that we might fall into the trap of over applying 13:3-4. I've seen this again and again as Christians point to these verses to support our government's nasty habit of invading other countries whenever we feel it is in America's best interests. I've also heard these verses used to defend self-defense to the point of vigilantism.
We cannot ignore what Paul said at the end of chapter 12. As Christ's followers, we are not to avenge ourselves. We are not to repay evil for evil. This hearkens back to what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: "Love your enemies." When we keep these things in mind, we are forced to see that Romans 13 has a much smaller application than what has been popular in modern evangelicalism. In Romans 13 Paul is simply saying that government uses its power to discipline those who would break the law. The apostle is discussing how a nation state functions within its own borders. It has nothing to do with invading other countries. It's got even less to do with any sort of self-defense.
For whatever reason the church in the USA has a tendency to support the military almost no matter what it does (at least as long as there's a Republican in the White House at the time). Romans 13 is frequently used as biblical justification for doing so. This is extremely poor interpretation of scripture.
We do much better to keep chapters 12 and 13 linked (which is what Paul intended). While the beginning of chapter 12 serves as a significant transition point in the letter, the beginning of chapter 13 does not. Paul's thought flows directly from 12 into 13. Therefore, everything in 13 must be read in the context of us being living sacrifices, repaying no one evil for evil, and us not avenging ourselves.
Avoid the danger of misinterpretation. Keep 12 and 13 linked.